Stage Door Review 2022
This Is How We Got Here
Monday, February 14, 2022
written and directed by Keith Barker
Native Earth Performing Arts, Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
February 12-19, 2022
Paul: “This worried the fox. He had never lost his own story before”
By scheduling Keith Barker’s play This Is How We Got Here the Shaw Festival made three major innovations. The first is that it began its 2022 season in February, the earliest it has ever begun a season. Perhaps it is because its extension of performances into December has proved so successful that the Festival has made this experiment, but it is one that local theatre-goers and the local economy will certainly appreciate.
Second, with this play the Festival brings a theatre company from outside the Shaw Festival, in this case Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts, to stage a play in one of the Festival’s venues. This is a move that benefits both the invited company which gets greater exposure and the local theatre-goers who get to see plays and players they might not otherwise encounter.
Third, Keith Barker’s play marks the first time the Festival has staged an Indigenous Canadian play under its aegis. This particular play has nothing to do with the Festival’s original mandate or with its mandate as expanded by Christopher Newton or Jackie Maxwell. Nevertheless, this is a first step and there are many other Indigenous plays that would well complement the Festival’s offerings.
As for Barker’s play itself, it suffers from two inherent difficulties – one in its subject matter, the other in its structure. In This Is How We Got Here Barker takes as his subject the continuing effects of a suicide on a tightly knit group of people one year after the event. The event is the suicide of Craig, the teenaged son of Paul (Kristopher Bowman) and Lucille (Nicole Joy-Fraser), an Indigenous couple who live somewhere in Northern Ontario.
As the one-year anniversary of Craig’s death approaches, Lucille becomes increasingly agitated and depressed and after a fight with Paul, she goes to stay with her older sister Liset (Jenn Forgie) for a while. Staying with Liset does not really help her escape the trauma of the anniversary since Liset’s husband Jim (Jonathan Fisher), Paul’s best friend, is the one who discovered Craig’s body.
Lucille’s one solace is a strange little fox she sees that visits her at Liset’s place every day. One day it gives her an egg. Lucille does not know what to make of this but it comforts her. Although she fears Liset will think she’s crazy, she tells her that she feels the fox may be the spirit of her dead son.
Barker allows realism to shade into magic realism, humour to temper sadness, in a respectful, gentle fashion. His primary difficulty is that he wants to keep the focus of the action entirely on his four characters and their interactions. Barker’s way of doing this is not ideal. His method is to suppress nearly all discussion of Craig, the fifth character who is so powerfully present because of his absence.
Any time the obvious question, “Why did Craig commit suicide?” arises, it is immediately answered with “Because he was depressed”. Anyone familiar with depression will know that “Because he was depressed” is a completely insufficient response. Not all depressed people commit suicide. We learn that Craig was taking medication, but we also learn that Craig had carefully planned his exit from the world. The first question is “What caused Craig to become depressed?” the second question is “What caused Craig to feel so hopeless that death seemed the only way out?”
Frustratingly, Barker gives us no answers to these questions because to spend too much time detailing Craig’s story would shift the focus of the play onto the suicide itself rather than on the after-effects of the suicide. Barker’s strategy means that the characters are prevented from saying anything meaningful or specific about the one person whose death has so strongly affected them.
Barker does provide a few very vague hints. Paul tried to get Craig interested in sports but it did not work. Craig didn’t want to body check anyone in hockey for fear of hurting them. We also find that Jim is extremely homophobic. He tries to give Paul evidence that Eric, a mutual acquaintance of theirs, is a “fruit”. Jim’s evidence is either so stereotyped or so off-base that the scene is humorous rather than threatening. And, in any case, Paul states outright that it would make no difference to him even if Eric were a “fruit”. Barker leaves it totally up to us to decide whether there is or is not a connection between Craig’s lack of interest in sports and Jim’s homophobia and Craig’s depression. It is as if Barker wants to give us as little background to Craig’s life as possible – a stance that ultimately works against the play.
The second difficulty with the play is its peculiar structure. Barker has deliberately arranged the scenes out of chronological order. Of the 18 scenes the first features Jim and Paul apparently hunting at night. Who or what they are hunting is not clear. Only near the end of the play do we realize that they are looking for Lucille, who has run away from Liset in search of the fox that Liset had inadvertently scared away. Of the 18 scenes eight are labelled “One Year Anniversary” (referring to Craig’s death) and these proceed in chronological order. Four scenes interpolated between these scenes, are labelled “Fox Story”, in which each of the characters in turn tells the story in chronological order of a fox who told so many stories about the other animals that he forgot his own. If the fox of this story is somehow meant to relate to Craig, it is hard to see what it might mean that Craig could have “lost his own story”.
The remaining scenes have such labels as “Two Weeks Before The Anniversary”, “Four Months After Death” and “Four Days After Death”. Why Barker has chosen this non-chronological ordering is unclear. Isidra Cruz’s costuming of the characters is so similar from scene to scene that we get no strong visual cues as to when one event is happening in relation to another. Barker’s text, too, unlike, the non-chronological scenes in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982), lack the verbal cues that would tell us how scenes relate to each other.
In Top Girls, Churchill arranges the scenes non-chronologically to build to a revelation. Here there play also ends with a revelation, but this comes about through the chronological scenes of the “One Year Anniversary”. Thus, Barker’s use of non-chronological scenes is more confusing than constructive.
Despite this, Barker obtains fine performances from the cast. Even if we don’t quite know where we are in the story, the actors still make us care about their characters’ emotions and state of mind. As Paul, Craig’s father, Kristopher Bowman gives the subtlest performance. (Bowman happens to be a member of the Shaw Festival ensemble which helps to provide a link between the play and the its performance venue.) Bowman is adept at letting us know exactly what Paul is thinking even if his character is saying nothing specifically related to those thoughts. Bowman gives us the impression that Paul is tightly wound and unused to relaxing mentally or physically. Bowman’s scene as Paul before a support group for bereaved parents is especially good in that he makes Paul’s hesitancy in speaking convey far more than anything Paul actually says.
Nicole Joy-Fraser makes Lucille, Craig’s mother appear not merely depressed but shell-shocked. The anniversary of her son’s death seems to have made it impossible for her to relate to anything in the world around her, except, of course, for the mysterious little fox who visits. In these scenes Joy-Fraser’s voice and facial expression soften to reveal a gentleness that we know must have been the major part of her nature before trauma destroyed it.
As Jim, Jonathan Fisher is generally the comedian of the group. Paul says that Jim is not a good liar and Fisher knows exactly how to convey that characteristic. But he can be serious. The fact that Barker has Jim narrate Jim’s discovery of Craig’s body only makes that narrative more poignant.
If Jim is the comic counterpart to the serious Paul, Jenn Forgie’a Liset is the grounded, rational counterpart to the struggling, irrational Lucille. Forgie is excellent at showing how Liset’s gruff exterior only partially conceals her naturally compassionate personality.
This Is How We Got Here is only the second show this year that I have seen live. Barker’s play ends in a tender, moving fashion which sums up, in general, the overall effect of the play and the effect of seeing a play in person again. A visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake in February is very pleasant because the town seems to have been returned to its year-round inhabitants. To see a play at the Shaw at this time of year is a treat. To see the Shaw partner with Native Earth was also a treat that felt like a connection that had long been missing. Let’s hope that the Festival’s experiment this year proves successful enough for a February show next year with a longer run.
Photo: Nicole Joy-Fraser and Kristopher Bowman; Kristopher Bowman and Jonathan Fraser; Jonathan Fraser and Jenn Forgie; Jenn Forgie and Nicole Joy-Fraser. © 2022 David Cooper.
For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.